Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Emily Dickinson Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson 1830–1886

American poet.

Although only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime—all anonymously and some apparently without her consent—Dickinson is considered a premier American poet. Choosing the lyric as her form, Dickinson wrote on a variety of subjects, including nature, love, death, and immortality. As she honed the lyric format, Dickinson developed a unique style, characterized by compressed expression, the use of enjambment, and an exploration of the possibilities of language. In 1955 the publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson's complete poems prompted renewed scholarly interest in her work. Modern criticism has focused on Dickinson's style, structure, use of language, and the various themes found in her poetry. Some critics have examined these same issues from a feminist viewpoint. Regardless of the critical angle, most modern scholars incorporate some discussion of Dickinson's life experiences into their examinations of her work.

Biographical Information

Critical and popular interest in Dickinson's life has been fueled by the mythology that has grown up around the limited factual knowledge available. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer and an invalid mother, Dickinson's schoolwork was often interrupted by time spent at home learning domestic chores. Beginning in 1835, she spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From there, Dickinson advanced to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, where her studies were influenced by New England Puritanism. This, together with Dickinson's Unitarian upbringing, heavily influenced her poetry's structure—the lyric form she used was a revision of the hymn quatrain—as well as its content—religious themes are the focus of many of her poems. Despite these influences on her work, though, personal faith eluded her and she remained an agnostic throughout her life.

After her year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned to her family's home where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. From 1851 to 1855,

she made a few brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Biographers speculate that on one trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment from this affair triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. This, and other rumors of romantic entanglements, are largely conjecture; however, it is known that her reclusiveness intensified over the years. Her personal habits—always wearing white, never leaving her home, refusing to receive visitors—earned her a reputation for eccentricity. In 1874, Dickinson's father died unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her invalid mother, who died in 1882. Dickinson died in 1886 after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney disorder.

Major Works

Over the course of her writing career, Dickinson composed nearly eighteen hundred poems, all in the form of brief lyrics. She explored a variety of subjects: the austerity and beauty of nature, experiences of love and loss, and her own skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality, as well as her fascination with death. Drawing heavily from biblical sources and influenced by such poets as George Herbert, Shakespeare, and John Keats, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. She experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes, and also employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, thereby creating a poetic style that further distinguished her verse from contemporary American poetry.

Critical Reception

Initial criticism of Dickinson's work, following the 1890 publication of Poems of Emily Dickinson , was largely unfavorable, yet her work received widespread popular acclaim. Willis...

(The entire section is 116,675 words.)